There and Back Again: A Thruhiker’s Tale

“[Bilbo] used often to say that there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: it’s springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further . . . ?’ He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had ben out for a long walk.”

Frodo, The Lord of the Rings, Book I: The Ring Sets Out

Thruhikers are the unlikeliest of creatures. They don’t seem disposed to any great heroics, they do not fight great battles or have magical powers, but they have shockingly deep reserves of strength and motivation that allow them to carry on walking when elves fall by the wayside.

Their feet can be surprising and upsetting when you first see them, hardened, dirty, maybe not as hairy as most hobbit feet but some certainly fit the bill. They insist on calling their travelling companions by names they earn in the wild. Everyone may know that that guy in their fellowship, or trail family, is named Aragorn, but they will insist on calling him Strider. As they travel on their journey the fellowship may split up, and some may leave the trail forever, they will always find each other eventually and create new trail families along the way.

“I will give you a traveling name now. When you go, go as Mr. Underhill.”

Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings, Book I: The Ring Sets Out

What amazes people the most about them might be how much they can eat and drink despite being so small. A normal person may eat three meals in a day, but a thruhiker eats breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. These aren’t light meals either, the thruhiker packs away as much food as they possibly can, and they’re still hungry afterwards. They can eat as much lembas bread as you can give them. When they get into town they love to indulge in a pint, or two, or five.

“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves.”

The Hobbit, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

Sometimes leaving town or leaving home is hard for them, as the vortex sucks them in. They all have two sides, Baggins and Took. One that loves the comfort of home, the ease of life in town, and one that feels the adventure and the trail calling to them. For most though, the longer they listen to the Baggins side, the more the Took side starts to itch. For years they try to satisfy it by reliving their adventures and walking through their neighborhood to the end of the road, but eventually the mountains will always call them back.

“I feel I need a Holiday, a very long holiday . . . I want to see mountains again, Gandalf-mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell.”

Bilbo, The Lord of the Rings, Book I: The Ring Sets Out

Despite their strength and resilience, even the most hardy of thruhikers needs trail angels to help them on their journey. There are all kinds of trail angels, the ones that plan to meet you on the trail to give you kingsfoil and take you to the hospital or magical elf king when you’re injured. The Tom Bombadils that just happen to be there at a time when you really need to get out of the trees and have a home cooked meal in a comfortable house. The Elf Kings where things get a little weird and you need to escape in a barrel. The Galadriels that help you pick up new gear that you didn’t realize you needed until you started your journey. And of course you need the shuttlers, the eagles that pick you up when you have nowhere else to turn, or when you’ve reached the end of the trail and you’re completely broken down, missing at least some toenails if not a whole finger, dreaming of strawberries, and they arrive and take you home.

When a thruhiker comes home to the Shire there’s something about them that has changed. They feel it inside, and although their friends and families may sense it, they can never fully explain how the experience has changed them, and no one who hasn’t gone on a quest of this nature will ever fully understand.

“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.”

Frodo, The Lord of the Rings, Book VI: The End of the Third Age

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